A Poem, Then Suburbs & Townhouses

A poem by Jorge Luis Borges, then a comment on the total otherness of our world, having to do with space.

The Streets
The streets of Buenos Aires
are my very soul.
Not the grasping streets,
uncomfortable with jostling and noise,
but the unhungry neighborhood streets,
out of habit almost invisible,
made forever out of shade and shadow
and those further out
empty of gentle trees
from where austere little houses hardly venture,
overwhelmed by immortal distances,
losing themselves in the deep vision
of sky and plain.
For the solitary man they are a promise
because thousands of singular souls people them,
unique before God and in time
and without doubt precious.
To the West, the North, and the South
these streets have unfolded--and they too are my own country;
in these lines that I trace
may their flags fly.


I put that line between the poem and these comments because it's a fantastic poem, and a lot of wonderful stuff could be said about it, but I'm going to get tangential here. The poem deserves to be separated from the following text, so that The Streets can stand alone.

You could set the poem in places besides Buenos Aires, and still have it work to one degree or another. Certain neighborhoods in New York or Boston, or in the hills of San Francisco. But you can't see it happening in most of the unfolded streets of America because of how they're built (he said, ignoring chicken v. egg debates).

I'm not talking about sprawl. The bane of suburbia is not sprawl; that is, it's not the raw space that it covers.

You've heard me complain about the centerlessness of so much of America as it's built up. But that's only a secondary problem. I even believe that it's being counteracted, with the surge in urban renewal/community development and gentrification, as well as the new emphasis on building "town square" shopping centers between or in "neighborhoods," instead of out on some eight-lane boulevard. The lack of community center isn't really why Borges' The Streets can't be placed in America.

It's not the built-in isolation of so many of these "communities" either (sorry about all the quotation marks...no, I'm not really sorry). It's not the one-entrance only into the development (safer that way). It's not all the cul-de-sacs. It's not the travesty that is the sidewalkless street.

You want to know what the problem is? It's the yard. The front yard, to be specific. Did anybody read the poem and picture houses with front yards? You probably didn't even picture grass on the sides of the homes, separating one lot from the other. I don't have a problem with backyards, I don't have a problem with side yards. I have a problem with front yards. The only way you could more clearly tell your neighbors and passers-by that they're not welcome is to build a tall fence around it. It's work to have to get through a yard.

It's one of the reasons I'm glad about the house we plan on closing on next week. The yard's on the side. There are six feet between the front steps and the street.

The only effective way to combat the front yard effect if you are burdened with one is to have a front porch, and to use it. That way you can call out to your neighbor as he walks by the gentle trees with his dog.

It is American dogma that you ain't a man unless you own land. It's deep in our culture. We need to have yards. They symbolize independence. Then again, according to American dogma, we need to be independent, self-sufficient, and captains of our own destinies. We shouldn't rely on anyone, or even feel obligated to carry the load for others. So...I'm not so sure the roots of the front yard are healthy. The yard doesn't just symbolize independence, it symbolizes isolation. I think it is a more Christian thing to desire a strong connection to the street.


P.S. I'm not saying we should build homes like Argentinians. After all, modern soullessness is modern soullessness. It can even be soulless without the front yard. I'm just saying that maybe the Christian architect should cast it aside (especially that aesthetic abomination, the treeless yard) as ugly. Uhg-lay.